How Healthy is my Brain?

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

How healthy am I?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, what with the hammer blow of the pandemic and my resultant loss and grief, as it’s taken an understandable toll on my physical and mental health. And in 2022, I resolved to deal with this. But, how best to go about it?

In the first instance, as it seemed the most straightforward (and I’d been putting it off for about a decade), I vowed to sort out my physical health, a process I’d describe as ‘ongoing’. But, despite what is often assumed, even insisted upon, I wasn’t 100% sure that getting into better physical shape would automatically improve my mental health. And here’s why.

Mental vs physical health concerns

When you, like I do, regularly have, or observe, public discussions about mental health, you start noticing things that pop up regularly. And one good example of this is the comparison between mental health, and physical health.

I cover this at length in my most recent book, but it’s a familiar aspect of the modern discourse. Particularly on social media, where you regularly encounter posts and memes about what it would be like if we behaved towards physical health conditions in the same way as we do mental health ones.

To be clear, such things regularly make sense and have a valid point to make. Mental health problems can easily be as severe and incapacitating as physical ailments, often even more so, but we would never say “Just get more exercise” or “Why don’t you try not having a broken leg?”, to someone who has a broken leg. Such posts hopefully show people that just because mental health ailments are comparatively less visible, tangible, or familiar, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to downplay, dismiss, or belittle them. At least that’s the intention, I assume.

But, as ever, things aren’t that simple, and there are numerous ways in which equating mental health issues to physical ones can backfire, and cause more problems. For instance, there’s the medical, or ‘disease’ model of mental health treatment, where doctors treat mental conditions as purely physiological, focussing solely on the underlying biological problems, like they would with almost any other health concern.

However, this model has many problems, and is no longer the ‘go-to’ approach of much of the healthcare world. For instance, the medical model expects patients to take a more passive role in the process and just do what the doctor says. But this is often counterproductive for mental health matters, where the patient is typically the only source of information and updates, and their active involvement in dealing with their issues is invariably a key part of getting better.

But then, it could be said that drawing a stark binary divide between mental and physical health matters is the wrong approach in any case. After all, so many physical health matters have mental side effects, and vice versa. A serious physical illness, like cancer, can easily, and reasonably, lead to depression, and depression can have notable physical consequences. It’s a murky issue, overall.

It all comes down to the brain

But then, having pondered it on multiple occasions, I realised there is an aspect where mental and physical health combine and overlap more than anywhere else, and that is, of course, the brain.

Our mind may be intangible and abstract, but it’s ultimately the result of physical processes occurring within the biology of our brains, the trillions of connections between neurons and the electrochemical signals that constantly pass between them. So, if there’s anywhere where physical and mental health concerns can and do directly intertwine, it’s here.

That’s arguably why exercise and better physical health is so strongly linked to improved mental health in the first place; our brain, where our mind comes from, is still a biological organ, and will logically function better when the physical health of our body can better sustain it.

But this, unfortunately, is not a one-way street. Physical improvement may lead to increased mental functioning, but by the same token, physical damage can lead to impaired mental functioning. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of sport-related head injury, and the long-term impact (no pun intended) of such concussions on mental health and brain functioning.

It’s a very topical, and controversial, subject matter right now. Even so, when top athletes, extremely physically fit individuals, can experience long term mental health consequences, after a physical injury or impact, it makes it abundantly clear that the brain is where mental and physical health effectively ‘become one’.

That was my reasoning, anyway. So, if I could assess how healthy my brain is, I could be more certain about my general state of health, right?

Only thing is, how exactly do I determine how healthy my brain is?

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A general health check for your brain

Thankfully, I found I had options. Thanks to some friends in the neuroscience world, and my looking into the issue of sports and concussion injuries, I was put in touch with the newly formed company MYndspan who, via the latest cognitive scanning and assessment technology, offer a service where you can have the overall health and functioning of your brain determined.

So, that was convenient. While their original aim was more detailed health and progress checks for athletes who’ve experienced concussion, it’s a service pretty much anyone can use if they’re curious about their brain’s health. And so, that was what I opted to do. The current UK location of MYndspan is Birmingham’s Aston University, so that’s where I went.

As an aside, I’m not sure how a 2 hour drive after a night of minimal sleep (kids are great, aren’t they) would affect the eventual readouts of my brain’s functioning, but I opted to just go with it and hope for the best.

It turns out, having your brain’s health assessed is relatively easy. Much easier than a thorough physical assessment would be, I’d wager. No sweating on treadmills, extracted fluids or forcing air from your lungs into a tube. Instead, it’s a few straightforward (if annoyingly challenging) cognitive assessment tests, like puzzles and memory tasks, followed by a 10 minute scan in an MEG machine, which probes the minute magnetic fields occurring in your brain, to get a good idea of what it’s up to.

Honestly, the most unpleasant part was during the scan, which involved having to stare blankly at a wall for 10 minutes while it worked, to prevent my brain do something that could have thrown off the very delicate process.

Even having my head/skull measured for the eventual results was weirdly entertaining, although I probably made the process easier by having the foresight to go largely bald several years earlier. I’m considerate like that.

And so, the health of my brain was assessed with the latest science, with no discomfort or stress whatsoever, unless you count navigating Birmingham’s notorious road network.

So… how healthy is my brain?

To clarify, MYndspan haven’t paid me anything for writing all this, unless you count providing me with a free scan, which isn’t something they did as a favour for me specifically (they’re still beta testing as of the publishing of this article, if you’re interested).

My main impetus for writing this, and being so enthusiastic about it, is that I am very enthused about brain health and how it affects us, and anything that makes it more accessible and relevant to your average person, well I’m obviously going to be very keen on supporting that.

Plus, as I’m a full time writer these days, meaning I rarely get the opportunity to do actual hands on neuroscience, and this really helped scratch that itch. Yes, I’m exactly the sort of scientist who’d experiment on himself if needs be. Probably best that they only let me work with words, if we’re honest.

So, how healthy is my brain. Well, MYndspan emailed me all the results of my tests and scans later that day, once they’d been processed. And it turns out my brain health is… average. Every chart and curve and graph provided, my results were invariably smack bang in the middle.

Does this mean I’m a prominent neuroscientist with a bog-standard cortex? Is it good or bad that my brain has average health? Should I work more, or less, to improve it? These were questions that still remained.

But then, I’m not actually trained to read and interpret scanning results like this. I know I’m a neuroscientist, but it’s a big field, and this is like expecting someone who specialises in the Tudor royal family to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics because ‘it’s all history’.

No, to be completely sure about how healthy my brain is, I needed to speak to some relevant experts. And that’s what I did…

[To be continued in Part 2 publishing very soon]

For more insights into the fundamental science of the brain and mental health, check out Dean Burnett’s latest book, Psycho-Logical.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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